Absence of Evidence…

Last week, the Alberta Court of Appeal delivered an interesting decision rejecting a constitutional challenge to the province’s prohibition on private health insurance brought by way of an application. In Allen v Alberta, 2015 ABCA 277, the Court held unanimously that the applicant hadn’t provided a sufficient evidentiary basis for his challenge, and that it should have been brought by way of an action and adjudicated after a full trial. This might have been the correct result, but the route the Justice Slatter, the author of the leading opinion, took to get there is in many ways disturbing. It illustrates, I think, some worrying tendencies in Canadian constitutional law generally, and also the difficulties which challenges to the government’s healthcare monopoly specifically will face.

* * *

In a way, the case is a very simple, and also a very Canadian, one. The applicant had suffered a back injury playing hockey, and even as his pain was getting worse and worse, he was put on a two-year long waiting list for an operation. The pain was too much, and he finally decided to undergo surgery in the United States, at his own (very considerable) expense. And thereafter, he went to court, seeking a declaration that the provision of the Alberta Healthcare Insurance Act that barred private health insurance from covering healthcare services provided by the public insurance plan was contrary to s. 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The argument was that the government monopoly on health insurance resulted in people having to wait a long time for healthcare, and to suffer as a result, thus breaching the “security of the person” guarantee of s. 7. To support his claim, the applicant submitted “a number of medical reports and proof of expenses he had incurred,” [7] and relied on the Supreme Court’s decision in Chaoulli v. Quebec (Attorney General), 2005 SCC 35, [2005] 1 S.C.R. 791, which declared a similar restriction on private health insurance contrary to Québec’s Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms.

For the Court, this was not good enough. After a heartfelt paean to the Canadian healthcare system, Justice Slatter went on to discuss “the importance of using appropriate procedures, and having a proper evidentiary record, when reviewing statutes for constitutionality.” [19] Constitutional cases, in his view, are not just ordinary cases:

Cases in which the appointed judiciary override the will of the democratically elected legislatures fall into a special category. Our constitution and the parliamentary system of government recognize the “supremacy of Parliament”. The presence, however, of an entrenched constitution now provides an important exception to that principle; statutes that are clearly inconsistent with the constitution are of no force or effect. [20]

For this reason, it is important that “the proper procedural safeguards [be] observed.” [21] While the citizen must have an opportunity to challenge the constitutionality of a statute, “fair[ness] to the legislature” means that the government must be able to defend it, and “fair[ness] to the court” requires that it have “a reasonable record on which to exercise this important component of its jurisdiction.” [21] The record here is not sufficient. There is a “presumption … that constitutional cases will be decided on a full evidentiary record, including, where appropriate, the evidence of expert witnesses.” [23] Evidence is especially important in constitutional cases because a declaration of unconstitutionality must, pursuant to s. 52 of the Constitution Act, 1982 determine the “extent of the inconsistency” between the impugned statute and the constitution, and “[t]he only way to know what is that “extent”, is to have a full evidentiary record with complete factual conclusions about it.” [26]

* * *

Justice Martin, in a rather terse concurrence, agrees with this reasoning, and would go no further. While Justice Slatter continues, to discuss Chaoulli and the applicant’s claim that it effectively settles the case, I will pause here and comment on this part of his reasons. As I said above, the conclusion that more evidence was required in this case may well have been correct. To be sure, it seems unlikely that the causal relationships between the prohibition on private health insurance and the existence of lengthy waiting lists established in Chaoulli are somehow not present in this case. A legislature that proceeded on the assumption that there was such a relationship would be acting rationally. But it is at least arguable that a court needs more than an assumption, no matter how plausible. It needs evidence. Allison Orr Larsen’s warnings about the dangers of “factual precedents” are apposite in the Canadian context. It may well be that a fuller record, including expert reports would have been necessary here, though I’m not sure I understand Justice Slatter’s insistence on the need for a trial to dispose of this case, as opposed to an application proceeding on a more developed record.

That said, if Justice Slatter is right, his conclusion ought to be disquieting. It confirms the worry that Sonia Lawrence expressed in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in Canada (Attorney General) v. Bedford, 2013 SCC 72, [2013] 3 S.C.R. 1101, and that I have been dwelling on ever since, that mounting a constitutional challenge to a statute may be becoming prohibitively complex and expensive. Marni Soupcoff, of the Canadian Constitution Foundation, which is mounting a challenge of its own to government healthcare monopoly, makes this case in a compelling op-ed in the National Post. Constitutional litigation is at danger of becoming the preserve of (relatively) well-funded public interest litigation outfits (such as the CCF). The Charter was supposed to be “the people’s package” of constitutional reform, but the people risk being prevented from bringing Charter cases by the requirement that such cases be supported by expert reports and proceed by way of trial rather than a less expensive procedure. Justice Slatter’s claim that there exists a “presumption” to this effect is particularly worrisome ― all the more so since he provides no indication as to how this presumption might be rebutted.

I want to comment on a couple of other points in the part of his reasons I have been discussing. The first one has to do with the nature of judicial review of legislation and the courts’ role in constitutional cases, on which Justice Slatter expounds in the excerpt of par. 20 quoted above. That passage contains a number of serious mistakes. For one thing, the constitution does not “recognize the ‘supremacy of Parliament'” ― those words appear nowhere in the Constitution Acts, and while Parliamentary sovereignty is arguably one of the constitution’s underlying principles, it is subject to the limits imposed by constitutional text and other such principles. For another, it is wrong to speak of an entrenched constitution that limits Parliamentary sovereignty as something new, something that only “now” exists. Canada has always had an entrenched constitution, and Canadian courts have always invalidated Canadian laws inconsistent with it, although the legal rationale for this practice did indeed change in 1982, from the supremacy of Imperial law to the supremacy of the (Canadian) constitution. Last but not least, Justice Slatter misrepresents the courts’ role on judicial review when he says that “statutes that are clearly inconsistent with the constitution are of no force or effect” ― there no such “clear inconsistency” requirement either in s. 52 of the Constitution Act, 1982 or in the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence. Constitutional cases, like all civil cases, are decided on an ordinary “balance of probabilities” standard.

The other point that I found disturbing is Justice Slatter’s unabashed celebration of the Canadian healthcare system, of which he says that it

is perceived by many as the crowning achievement of Canadian social policy. The majority of Canadians support the public funding of health care and oppose attempts to shrink or compromise the system. At the same time, many Canadians criticize the system; they would like it to be even better than it is. [14]

Justice Slatter also praises the Canadian healthcare system as “an example of co-operative federalism in action,” though the Canada Health Act, which threatens provinces with the loss of their federal healthcare transfers if they do not comply with its conditions, seems like a rather dubious example of “co-operation.” In any event, Justice Slatter is apparently oblivious to the irony of making unsupported empirical claims in an opinion that dismisses a constitutional challenge for want of evidence. But in the absence of support for these claims, it is somewhat difficult to avoid the suspicion that Justice Slatter is attributing his own views to the indistinct “majority” of which he speaks. After reading these lines, I would rather that he (and indeed his colleagues) not sit in judgment on a constitutional challenge that would, in effect, be an “attempt to … compromise the system,” to change it radically and not merely to make it “even better than it is.”

These two points together lead me to an additional observation. Justice Slatter’s approach is clearly very deferential to legislative choices. That would make him a “conservative” on the definitions that have been floating around of late, for example in some of Sean Fine’s “Tory judges” articles. But, as I’ve said before, “there is nothing inherently conservative about such an approach. It can serve to validate left- or right-leaning policies, depending on the politics of the policy-makers.” This case shows that this is indeed so. If anything, it shows that judges may be able to adopt a strategically deferential posture in order to achieve “progressive” results just as easily as to achieve “conservative” ones.

* * *

I will comment on just one passage from the remainder of Justice Slatter’s reasons. Justice Slatter observes that constitutions, including the Charter, are written in broad terms and

say nothing about the difficult social issues that come before the courts … Controlling this vague language falls to the courts, and an absence of institutional self-restraint by the judiciary makes the problem worse, not better. The Supreme Court has recast the phrase “principles of fundamental justice” with even less precise terms like overbreadth, disproportionality and arbitrariness, none of which have been comprehensively defined. It is, unfortunately, sometimes difficult to discern the difference between these concepts and a simple disagreement by the judiciary with the public policy decisions of democratically elected officials.

The text of s. 7 signals that the drafters of the Charter never intended it to be applied to the review of social and economic policies. … As Prof. [Peter] Hogg has pointed out, the intention of the framers of the Charter to restrict judicial review to procedural matters has been “totally disregarded by the Supreme Court of Canada” with dramatic consequences. [31-32]

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a Canadian court reverse-benchslap the Supreme Court in this way. Justice Slatter’s attack is pretty vicious, and in my view largely uncalled for.

It is true that s. 7 was not intended to be applied in the way it does, but it is, to say the least, not obvious that “original intent” is an appropriate criterion for interpreting it. Even if, contrary to the Supreme Court of Canada, one is inclined to be originalist, an “original public meaning” interpretation might support the Supreme Court’s conclusion, in Re B.C. Motor Vehicle Act, [1985] 2 S.C.R. 486 that “fundamental justice” is not a matter of procedure only. Anyway, it seems to me that it is a bit late to re-litigate that particular issue.

Beyond that, I don’t think it’s at all fair to reproach the Supreme Court for invoking principles such as overbreadth, disproportionality and arbitrariness in applying s. 7. They are, surely, not more open-ended than the expression “principles of fundamental justice.” The Court has tried, in cases such as Bedford and Carter v. Canada (Attorney General), 2015 SCC 5, [2015] 1 S.C.R. 331, to give them a relatively specific meaning, and in my view has been at least somewhat successful in this endeavour. Justice Slatter’s dismissal of this jurisprudence as “a simple disagreement by the judiciary with the public policy decisions of democratically elected officials” looks not unlike the expression of a simple disagreement by one judge with the constitutional policy decisions of his hierarchical superiors.

* * *

In a sense, this decision is just sound and fury, signifying nothing ― except, of course, that the applicant spent a significant amount of time and money on a litigation that proved fruitless. As Justice Watson rightly observes in his concurrence, “[d]ismissal of a declaration on the grounds that it was not made out in the pleadings and evidence is not the same thing as saying that an action properly pleaded, fairly proceeded with, and backed by sufficient evidence would be impossible.” [60] Perhaps the CCF will succeed in its own efforts to bring such an action. Yet the Court’s mistakes and dubious assertions about its role (about which I might have more to say separately) are cause for worrying, and the possibility that it is right about the high evidentiary threshold that a constitutional challenge must get over before even being considered on the merits is, if anything, even more distressing.

4 thoughts on “Absence of Evidence…

  1. Pingback: Allen v Alberta: The Sound and Fury of Section 7 and Health Care - TheCourt.ca

  2. Pingback: Allen v Alberta: The Sound and Fury of Section 7 and Health Care - TheCourt.ca

  3. Pingback: Old Story | Double Aspect

  4. Pingback: Permanent Problems | Advocates for the Rule of Law

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s